Leveling the Playing Field for Diverse Learners
- by Rob Lindsay
Rob Lindsay is a grade 6-7 science teacher at Lincoln Middle School, Portland ME. Teaching in an urban setting, Rob helps “level the playing field” for his diverse student population by using systems as a framework for essential science concepts and data as a tool of inquiry. Collaborating with teachers from three states provided a “cross-fertilization” of ideas.
The EaSiE project has changed my teaching in two important areas: using systems as the framework for developing student understanding, and using data as a tool of inquiry.
For the past nineteen years, I have taught science in an urban middle school on the coast of the Gulf of Maine. Currently we are a Title 1 school with about 480 students, about half of whom are economically disadvantaged. We have many immigrant students whose first language is not English. In the district as a whole, more than 50 languages are spoken. In my classes over the life of the EaSiE project, students have come from homes speaking Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Somali, Acholi, Spanish, Cambodian, Japanese, and Sudanese. Some immigrant students have years of schooling, and some have very little.
"Because our students come from a wide variety of situations, they arrive with a wide distribution of background knowledge. One of the ï¬ÂÂrst surprises of being involved in the EaSiE project was the way in which it helped to level the playing ï¬ÂÂeld for these students."
Although our teaching goals are firmly based on our state standards, most of our curriculum is teacher developed using textbooks and online sites as resources. Our district is fortunate in that all middle school students have state or district-issued laptops. One-on-one computing gives me the ability to use internet resources in a way that would be difficult otherwise.
Because our students come from a wide variety of situations, they arrive with a wide distribution of background knowledge. One of the first surprises of being involved in the EaSiE project was the way in which it helped to level the playing field for these students.
When I originally applied to be part of EaSiE, I hoped to learn more about climate change and systems. I had been teaching climate change for several years and knew that I wanted to learn more, especially as information was evolving rapidly. I had done some general work with students on systems and hoped that I might become more effective in connecting systems to specific topics, especially climate change.
When I began to teach the systems lessons that we developed in EaSiE, I discovered that they not only gave students a concrete way to connect pieces of information, but that systems were new to most students. Those with some background knowledge used it, but those without that knowledge were able to make connections as well. The two groups of students worked together more easily using a shared vocabulary and framework.
I teach in a two year loop, keeping the same 75 students throughout sixth and seventh grade. We began the first week of the loop with the Bicycle as a System lesson to give students a common, hands-on understanding of system terms and concepts. In each succeeding unit we were able to refer back to the bicycle (which I parked in a corner of the room) for clarification and review. We approached each new topic as the study of a system. Some, like “The Solar System as a System” or “The Rock Cycle as a System”, were obvious to students. Others, like “Watersheds as Systems”, were less apparent at first.
Gradually we added more and more sophisticated system concepts as we worked through the curriculum. For example, when we studied the rock cycle, we looked at volcanoes as nested systems. When we studied watersheds, we emphasized boundaries and how problematic it can be to determine them. When we reached climate change, I introduced the concept of feedback loops as a way of understanding the impact of changing arctic albedo.
At the end of every unit, I asked students to write about system elements like input, output, and interaction of parts as they related to that unit. Overwhelmingly, students were able to make more and better connections than they ever had before.
Based on an idea from another EaSiE participant, I kept a bulletin board on the wall showing all of our units for the year. Each unit dealt with a system: water, plate tectonics, and ecosystems were some of the areas we studied. As we progressed, students were also able to find connections between seemingly different topics, like water and rocks, by applying system concepts. For instance, they realized that rain, as an output of the weather system, also acted as an input to the rock cycle in the form of weathering. All too often, students see units as discrete subjects that have nothing to with each other. By thinking in terms of systems, they understood one of Barry Commoner's Laws of Ecology: everything is connected to everything else.
Looking back, I realize now that I used to avoid working with data in depth. I worried that too much data would be too abstract for twelve-year-olds or that it wouldn't hold their attention. Working with buoy data changed my mind.
During the sixth grade half of our loop, we first explored maps to learn about the boundaries of the Gulf of Maine and the bathymetry of the Gulf’s floor. To give students a tangible sense of the depth of the offshore waters, I had them build scale models of the Gulf out of card stock and Cheerios. Students cut out the coastline of the Gulf. Using a copy of the same map printed on a different color card stock, they next cut along the 100 foot depth. They repeated this process for the next four bathymetry lines: the 200 foot, the 300 foot, the 400 foot, and the sudden drop to the 2000 foot level. They stacked their maps in order and glued columns of Cheerios between them, with each Cheerio representing 100 feet, until they had a representation of the bottom of the Gulf. As opposed to the flat bathymetric maps of the Gulf we had been using, this three-dimensional version created a unique and strong visual impact on students, and they were amazed at the sudden drop to 2000 feet.
After completing their three dimensional maps, students used data from buoys operated under the auspices of the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, also known as GOMOOS. (The GOMOOS system has now been subsumed under the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems, or NERACOOS). Each student chose a weather buoy in the Gulf of Maine and adopted it. To stake their claim, they marked their buoys locations on their maps with small flags.
For four weeks during the winter, they tracked and recorded high and low water and air temperatures. When water temperatures at two buoys remained completely unchanged for a month, this led to a rich discussion of the limits of measurement tools and choices regarding breaks in data. Ultimately, students decided to consider those temperatures ï¬‚awed and did not use them. At the end of our observation month, students compared their data with changing hours of daylight as they looked for explanations for the temperature shifts they observed.
During the four weeks when students were collecting temperature information, I used our knowledge of systems to teach weather as a system. Breaking down weather into the interaction of its significant parts (like temperature, air pressure, and precipitation) gave students great thinking tools to explain phenomena from thunderstorms to fog. Creating working definitions and frequently revisiting them turned out to be a great way to surface and address confusion and misunderstanding. This was especially true when we distinguished weather from climate, and students readily understood the difference between weather as “the clothes you're wearing today,” and climate as “the clothes in your closet.” One sign of how well these definitions worked came towards the end of the school year when the social studies teacher on my team taught biomes. Climate, of course, is one of the criteria that characterize particular biomes. Students volunteered our earlier climate definition and explained that clothes in a rain forest closet would obviously be different from those in an arctic closet.
Because I teach in a loop, I have the ability to build on and connect units over two years. The year after we adopted buoys, when the same class was in seventh grade, students continued their data investigation into the Gulf of Maine. Our seventh grade curriculum focuses mainly on life science, so we began with the inquiry question, “What is the effect of phytoplankton on whale migration in the Gulf of Maine?” Using materials from the New Hampshire Seacoast Science Center, we examined seasonal satellite renderings of phytoplankton in the Gulf. Working in small groups, and without knowing which picture represented which month, students put monthly phytoplankton maps in order. After the groups shared out and the whole class came to agreement on the sequence, students began to develop explanations for the results. As sunlight increases in the spring and provides more fuel for photosynthesis, phytoplankton reproduce and increase.
Using an online database of whale sightings in the Gulf, students chose individual whales. They created projections of possible seasonal migratory paths for their whales and then compared these with the phytoplankton patterns they had discovered earlier. Whales seemed to come to areas where phytoplankton blooms occur, but they came a month or so after the blooms ended. This led to discussions of the possible intermediate role of zooplankton as well as the breaks in the whale migration data and cycled back to the previous year's lesson on the effect of day length.
Neither of these lessons would likely have happened prior to my participation in EaSiE. Adding data to observation, experimentation, and other strategies have created a better basis for inquiry. Students are beginning to discover ideas and grapple with scientific reasoning through their engagement with data.
This has carried over to work not directly touched on in EaSiE lessons. During a service learning project inspired by the problem of climate change, students decided to investigate replacing paper towels in the bathrooms with high efficiency electric hand dryers. This led them to comparisons of carbon dioxide equivalents, kilowatts per hour, and amortized costs over time, a tremendous amount of data. Because of their previous work with data, students were able to grasp these numbers and make sense of their implications. They used the data to persuade the principal of the value of the hand dryers in terms of both cost and carbon footprint. Eventually, they wrote and were awarded a grant to install hand dryers in two bathrooms.
The impact on students of my participation in EaSiE includes this increased use of data with a variety of topics, including earthquakes, ocean currents, and lobster life cycles. In addition, by focusing on the Gulf of Maine, students have made greater connections between the Gulf and the mainland. Despite our proximity to the ocean, many of our lower income and immigrant students have never even been to the beach; now they have a good understanding of the Gulf's impact on our weather, our economy, and our food sources.
EaSiE concepts and lessons have percolated throughout my school as well. After the first summer that our cohort met, I began sharing our systems work with the other sixth grade science teacher. Over the three years of developing EaSiE lessons, I have continued to share them. To date we have integrated the EaSiE system and weather units into our common curriculum and continue to work on infusing data concepts.
EaSiE has also had an impact on our whole science department. I first learned about Curriculum Topic Study, or CTS (Keeley, 2005), at one of our winter meetings. CTS is a thoughtful and comprehensive way to align standards and developmental research around any given science topic, and I have found it to be invaluable for assessing curriculum and instruction. I shared CTS with our school science department and, with support from the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, science teachers from sixth to eighth grade are now using CTS to plan and refine units. Teachers post their thinking about units online to share and get feedback from each other.
For me personally, one of best outcomes of participating in the EaSiE project has been one I had not anticipated. As teachers, it is easy to get caught up in the demands of a particular classroom, in the pressure cooker schedule of the school year, and in the history of the way we've always done things. Working with teachers from across the Gulf of Maine region has opened the door to many new possibilities for sharing and cross-fertilization of ideas. For example, a teacher from one state brought us the idea of adopting GOMOOS buoys. Working in another state, I took that and added the three-dimensional bathymetric models with my students. Sixth months later, a teacher from a third district extended the lesson with additional work on mapping.
The fact that we have worked together over a period of three years has given us the chance to piggyback off each other's ideas, try them out, and bring the results back to the group for feedback. For me, that has been an opportunity not only to network and share ideas, but also to continually refine my teaching and deepen my understanding.
Keeley, P. (2005). Science curriculum topic study: Bridging the gap between standards and practice. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.